The HIV crisis in the United States is far from over. The confluence of widespread opioid usage, high rates of HIV infection, and rapidly shrinking rural medical infrastructure has created a public health powder keg across the American South. Yet few states have responded to this grim reality by expanding social and medical services. Instead, criminalizing the behavior of people with HIV remains an overused and counterproductive tool for addressing this crisis—especially in the South, where HIV-specific criminal laws are enforced with the most frequency.
People living with HIV are subject to arrest, prosecution, and lengthy prison sentences if they fail to disclose their HIV-positive serostatus before engaging in sexual or needle-sharing activities. Passed in response to panic following the discovery of HIV, these laws have not kept pace with medical advancements regarding the transmission and treatment of the infection. As a result, they criminalize behaviors that pose little risk of transmission and punish people who cannot or do not infect others. HIV criminalization laws also contribute to the spread of HIV by disincentivizing HIV testing, which would otherwise connect people to prevention and treatment plans.
While other scholars have critiqued these laws, this Article is the first to argue that state legislatures should pivot away from criminalization toward a comprehensive response to HIV informed by harm reduction—a branch of public health emphasizing risk mitigation. This approach must prioritize both the expansion of preventative services and the repeal of most HIV exposure laws. Simultaneously broadening services and narrowing criminal liability would remove barriers to HIV testing and promote early medical interventions, which reduce the spread of HIV and improve health outcomes. This paradigmatic shift also introduces a framework that can be implemented in other public health contexts that currently over-rely on criminalization throughout the region and the country.